Eight-year-old Kahu craves her great-grandfather's love and attention. But he is focused on his duties as chief of a Maori tribe in Whangara, on the East Coast of New Zealand - a tribe that claims descent from the legendary 'whale rider'. In every generation since the whale rider, a male has inherited the title of chief. But now there is no male heir - there's only Kahu. She should be the next in line for the title, but her great-grandfather is blinded by tradition and sees no use for a girl.
Kahu will not be ignored. And in her struggle she has a unique ally: the whale rider himself, from whom she has inherited the ability to communicate with whales. Once that sacred gift is revealed, Kahu may be able to re-establish her people's ancestral connections, earn her great-grandfather's attention - and lead her tribe to a bold new future.
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First published in 1987 in New Zealand the author's homeland as well as the story's setting this circuitous novel inspired a film of the same title, which is scheduled for U.S. release this summer. A rather dense prologue tells of the long-ago appearance of a gigantic whale with "a swirling tattoo imprinted on the forehead" and a spear-throwing man riding on its back. After the narrative shifts to contemporary times, readers learn that this "whale rider" was Kahutia Te Rangi, founder of the Maori tribe whose chief is now Koro Apirana, grandfather of the 24-year-old narrator, Rawiri. Hoping for a great-grandson to inherit his title, Koro Apirana is disgusted when the wife of Rawiri's older brother gives birth to a girl. The child, named Kahu in honor of the whale rider, adores her great-grandfather, yet he ignores her, continually dismissing her when she tries to listen in on his lessons to the boys on tribal traditions. But Kahu can communicate with whales and emits a "special radiance," and it becomes evident that she will play a crucial role within her tribe. Despite Kahu's prominence, this story is also very much the narrator's, and as such may be likelier to hold the attention of adults than children. Ihimaera is at his best in depicting the bonds among the family members, but his use of symbols can be heavy-handed and passages focusing on the now-ancient whale may seem slow-moving. Ages 10-up.